I had hoped for a good night’s sleep. But just after midnight when I got up for a glass of water, I returned to the bedroom, leaned over, missed the bed by inches, and collided with an unforgiving chest of drawers. As the room spun, I fell into bed.
I lay quietly next to my sleeping husband while a flourishing headache and a bruised nose, that throbbed with each heartbeat, eliminated the possibility of going back to sleep. Convinced my face was a swollen mass of black-and-blue tissue, I stumbled into the bathroom to look in the mirror. The harsh light revealed only a small bruise under my left eye. Maybe my secret was safe. Maybe no one would know that I broke my nose on the day our adopted baby came home.
Just three months before my clash with the bedroom furniture, our baby, named Kim Hee, was born in Inchon, South Korea. She was six weeks premature, weighed in at a little over five pounds, and needed parents and a permanent home of her own. God’s plan to complete our family was set in motion, and the last steps to finalize our paperwork, arrange for the trans-continental flight, and a chaperone commenced.
We expected our baby’s homecoming at the end of January and made preparations accordingly. Sheets, blankets, and bumper pads were on the crib. Formula, bottles, and disposable diapers filled the pantry. Tiny pajamas, undershirts, and socks rested in the dresser. A jaunty mobile hung over the crib and the infant seat waited in the front closet. The material things were ready and waiting, and so was my heart. It overflowed in anticipation.
The adoption process had been in the works for over two years, and I ached to hold our precious girl. We named her Nicole, which in Greek means “victory of the people.” The years, months, days, and now hours of waiting were almost over, and yet sentimental commercials, greeting cards, or the sight of a woman pushing a stroller still brought tears. But I always found comfort holding the well-worn black and white photo of our newborn lying in a crib thousands of miles away.
Hyperactive butterflies had taken up permanent residence in my stomach. I jumped with each phone call; finally the anticipated call came right after New Year’s Day.
“It’s short notice, but will you be ready for your baby to arrive on January sixth?” our caseworker asked.
Two words tumbled out, “Of course!” And indeed we were ready. From that point everything kicked into high gear.
* * *
According to the time of day, I knew our infant daughter would be on the last leg of her eighteen hour flight. I checked the contents of the diaper bag for the tenth time, loaded the camera and a handful of tissues into my purse, and checked the nursery. I hadn’t been this excited since our son’s birth nearly ten years before.
When the phone rang I anticipated hearing my dad’s voice to double-check on the flight’s arrival time. However, with the no-nonsense tone of our caseworker’s greeting, my heart skipped a beat and the throbbing in my skull kicked up a notch. Those somersaulting butterflies turned to lead as I braced for bad news. Something was wrong, very wrong. I listened as she reluctantly relayed the tragic events of the past few hours.
While en-route over the cold Pacific Ocean, sometime during the flight between Tokyo and Seattle, one of the five adoptive babies died in her sleep. Our caseworker reassured us that our daughter was safe and well, but the happy journey had taken a deadly turn. She went on to say that when a chaperone checked on the infant, her little body, already cool to the touch, did not respond. She had passed on, attended by angels, and would not be coming home. One precious child would never meet her loving family who had waited many months, perhaps years, for her arrival.
The eager young couple would never embrace their baby, place her safely in her crib, or hold hands and bask in a state of wonderment and relief. Rather than tears of happiness, they would shed cold, bitter tears of unyielding grief. The deep hurt would cut away at their hearts, rob them of sleep, and of their dream of a child of their own. I envisioned a lovingly prepared nursery, a closet-full of clothes, a rocking chair, and a pink receiving blanket ready and waiting. But none of these things would be needed today or in the days to come.
I imagined how devastating the news would be for the couple. Their tragedy came so close that I could feel its icy breath on my skin and shivered as if I had met a ghost.
My emotions did cartwheels as our caseworker continued. Since the couple couldn’t be reached by phone, she asked if we would help out. Only two of the five babies were bound for Portland. Their request was for us to keep an eye out for the couple and tell them to contact the airport authorities immediately – nothing more.
We agreed to help, but many questions came to mind: What if the couple asked us questions, what if they suspected bad news and responded accordingly, and how should we react? Could we handle this heavy responsibility?
I wanted to dive under the covers and hide. My joy had evaporated. Our special day was ruined. But the minute these thoughts surfaced, guilt kicked in and I burst into tears.
I cried for the man and woman I might never meet. I cried for their baby and I cried for us. Then I shivered with fear. It was a fear I couldn’t define at first, but it gnawed at my gut. I realized I was afraid of how the couple might react when they learned we were united with our daughter. I was afraid our baby had been exposed to an unknown illness. I was afraid and miserable on the very day that had been long anticipated. “What-ifs” and “what-might-have-beens” played over and over in my mind.
How could we fully rejoice when we knew that another family’s hopes and dreams were shattered? By a twist of fate, we shared the sorrow of complete strangers and like a punch in the stomach, the familiar feeling of apprehension and doubt hit home. I thought I had shaken my nemesis, apparently not.
With a heavy heart my husband called his mother to share the news. We couldn’t let her join us at the airport, unaware of the turn of events. Then I called my father. He didn’t know what to say. What could anyone say at a time like this?
* * *
We drove along the slippery, gray ribbon of highway to the airport as a ruthless rainstorm hammered at our car. My husband’s hands gripped the steering wheel. Our nine year old son hugged his favorite stuffed animal, a gift for his new baby sister. I wiped down my steamy car window, my tears matching the pouring rain outside. Only the “swoosh, swoosh” of the tires on the rain-slicked road and the rhythmic beat of the wiper blades interrupted my thoughts. How would this day unfold? I wondered.
A crowded airport restaurant wasn’t the best place to deal with the mounting tension. Grandma made every attempt to comfort us as we waited for Uncle Bruce and my father to arrive, but my stomach was in knots and my bruised face throbbed relentlessly. My thoughts looped round and round as I reminded myself that it was a jubilant day for our family, and yet it was not to be for another. What a mad “merry-go-round” of emotions I rode.
With no appetite, I looked up from my cup of coffee and uneaten donut, and saw a man and woman at a table just a few feet away. An adjoining chair held a diaper bag and a camera sat on the table next to the woman’s purse, but there was no baby in sight. They smiled at each other, held hands, and nervously checked their watches every minute or two. I knew why they were at the airport and why they were so happy.
When we heard the announcement over the public address system, all conversation at our table stopped. “Mr. and Mrs. Anderson with the Holt party, please report to the Information Desk immediately. Thank you.” The man and woman exchanged puzzled looks, gathered their belongings, and left the restaurant. I let out a long breath and said a prayer for them.
Despite our reprieve, tension mounted as we contemplated the scene that would play out in the approaching hour. At the gate we made an attempt at small talk as we tried to keep up a cheerful façade. But Uncle Bruce gave up and walked over to the expanse of cold, foggy windows where he nervously shuffled his feet. My husband and I held hands and gazed past Bruce’s shoulder, deep in our own thoughts. Our son stood next to Grandma. My father was delayed due to car trouble.
The thirty-minute wait seemed like sixty; I kept checking my watch. However, when the big silver “stork” landed and taxied to the gate, the adrenaline kicked in and this time I welcomed those hyperactive butterflies. I felt alive again.
After scores of passengers disembarked, Holt’s chaperone walked down the ramp with a little bundle in her arms. She smiled warmly at us and hurried her step. I fought to keep it together, but at the sight of our baby’s black hair poking out the front of a little yellow hood, I burst into tears. My precious baby was home and I couldn’t wait to hold her. I wasn’t taking anything for granted ever again.
I couldn’t let her go. As I inhaled the soothing aroma of baby powder and absorbed the soft sounds of a newborn, feelings of joy, relief, and thankfulness bubbled to the surface and broke free. I felt my husband’s arm tighten around my shoulder and the whole world was wrapped up in just the three of us.
As we dabbed our eyes, Mrs. Bertha Holt, the co-founder of Holt International Children’s Services, approached us. The petite eighty-year-old woman was exhausted after the eighteen hour flight and visibly distraught over the death of one of her precious babies; however she managed to keep herself in control. Mrs. Holt made sure our child was delivered safely to us and headed for the VIP lounge.
Uncle Bruce took rolls of pictures as we passed baby Nicole around and hugged each other. We forgot everything else that had happened that day and relished each wonderful minute right there at Gate 4. But our euphoric mood evaporated when our caseworker approached. She solemnly ushered us to the lounge where Mrs. Holt presented a bulky packet of documents, and briefed us on our baby’s background and how she handled the flight. I listened with one ear as I nodded and thanked her for bringing our daughter home, but my thoughts were also with the grief-stricken couple.
We were caught off guard when Mrs. Holt asked if we would meet with the couple who had lost their child. She explained they wanted to see our baby and make certain she was alive and well. I believe Mrs. Holt understood our reluctance because she assured us that it was our choice to see them or not. It was a defining moment and we had but an instant to decide.
I felt lightheaded and tried to gather my thoughts. Would the mourning parents lose control at the sight of our baby? Would our meeting only cause them more pain? What should we do? My mother-in-law was clearly against the idea. I could see it in her eyes. My husband and I exchanged looks and we silently agreed. We would meet them.
Minutes later we entered the inner room where I instantly recognized the couple from the restaurant. Tears stained their stricken faces. The woman’s empty arms hung at her side. The camera and diaper bag sat forgotten on the floor.
When she asked to hold our little girl, I held my breath as I placed Nicole into her outstretched arms. For a fleeting second I feared she would run from the room to claim my baby as her own. But she tenderly cradled Nicole. Tears streamed down her face as her husband leaned in to give comfort. We watched helplessly, as her tears fell onto our baby’s silky black hair.
Then with all of the strength she could gather, the courageous woman gently returned Nicole to my arms, wiped her red-rimmed eyes, and said, “She’s beautiful. Thank you for letting us see her. We had to be sure she was alright.”
Before we left the room and crossed the threshold to our new life, I looked back and said a silent prayer for the bereaved couple. I knew it was a day we’d remember for the rest of our lives. I stroked my baby’s velvet-soft cheek, looked into her exotic eyes, and pulled her close, grateful my angel was home and in my arms as well as my heart.
* * *
It was mid-August 1983, eight months after our daughter’s homecoming, when we bumped into the “airport couple” at the annual Holt family picnic in Eugene, Oregon. But this time we shared tears of joy as they introduced us to their infant daughter, Anna. The prior winter Holt officials had processed new paperwork, cut red-tape, and delivered them a beautiful baby girl. I like to think it was in time for Mother’s Day.